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Twelve dogs and a sled

Team handler Mike Hoff encourages Colleen Sweeney Wallin at the start of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon. (Heidi Pinkerton)

Sports

Twelve dogs and a sled

Colleen Sweeney Wallin became an unlikely lover of a unique winter sport

A dozen tense sled dogs strain at their harnesses, impatiently waiting with 13 other sled teams from the United States and Canada. Behind these 12 dogs, a musher wearing bib number 15 grins and steadies her crew. Sunglasses, purple cap, and a thick, fox-fur-ruffed red snowsuit mostly hide her dark eyes, fair Irish skin, and auburn hair. Her mittened fingers grip the wooden handles of a titanium sled, heavy boots planted firmly on its footboards.

At two-minute intervals, handlers lead each team to the starting line. There, after a 10-second countdown, dogs and musher erupt onto a 300-mile, snow-packed trail one team at a time. So begins the 36th John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, lasting two days in January in Minnesota along Lake Superior’s north shore.

Colleen Sweeney Wallin, 57, from Two Harbors, Minn., is not the stereotypical musher from a Jack London novel—no burly body or grizzled countenance. No wilderness experience, either, until she embraced mushing. Growing up in a Twin Cities suburb with six sisters and only small dogs for pets, she never expected to own, feed, and train 37 huskies, much less compete in the longest premier sled dog race in the Lower 48, a qualifier for the famed Alaskan Iditarod. 

Wallin first became interested in sled dogs in 1993, after watching the finish-line filming in downtown Two Harbors of the classic movie Iron Will. Her avid hunter-fisherman husband of 32 years, Ward, gifted her with a paid recreational sled dog trip to the Boundary Waters wilderness area, and that trip’s emotional experience persuaded her next to research and purchase dogs to train on the 40 acres surrounding their log cabin.

Her love for dog sledding grew, and she entered her first competition, the shorter Beargrease 100-mile race, in 1995 with no racing know-how. When her lead runner injured its ankle and other dog issues ensued, the whole team refused to continue, stopping 8 miles from the finish line. 

The trail crew eventually found Wallin in the dark with her minimal survival gear and tired dogs and said she’d have to quit. After begging for one more chance, she rallied her canines and crossed the finish line last, long after everyone but family members had gone. 

“It was a cool sense of accomplishment,” says Wallin, and it motivated her to keep training. Prior to January’s ­competition, she had completed 18 Beargrease races, finishing as the top female in 13 races and as third overall in 2014. 

Mishaps occur during training, too. Once, careening around a turn, her sled tipped, dumping Wallin over a bridge into icy, waist-deep water, and her dogs took off. She hiked 3 miles in wet (soon frozen) snow pants before finding her team lying down calmly waiting for her. Another time, she grew dehydrated and hallucinated that turtles were clogging the trail.

Even occasional race temperatures of minus 50 degrees haven’t daunted Wallin, though twice she didn’t compete because of the births of her two sons and twice organizers canceled for lack of snow.

Rather than isolating her from family members, dog sledding unites them. Everyone participates in what’s also become a family side business, Silver Creek Sled Dogs. Ward helps train and run the dogs and splits daily feeding and poop-scooping with Wallin. (Their 37 huskies consume 4 tons of food every nine months.) Sons Ian, 21, and Ero, 17, help care for the dogs between school and hockey events. This year marks Ero’s second Beargrease shorter competition. 

“It makes me feel good to know Ero’s on the same trail as I am, seeing what I’m seeing,” says Wallin.

During today’s race, the trail is the best Wallin’s ever seen. A deep snowpack of 40 inches on the northern portion makes sledding fast but controllable and keeps Wallin in the pack of lead mushers.

Heidi Pinkerton

Colleen Sweeney Wallin (Heidi Pinkerton)

The marathon commemorates John Beargrease, son of an Anishinabe chief. He and his brothers delivered mail weekly along the rugged Superior shoreline between Two Harbors and Grand Marais from 1879 to 1899. Mail communication connected and helped develop this northern frontier. 

At six marathon checkpoints, handlers help unharness, feed, rest, and then reharness teams. Veterinarians check dogs. Mushers briefly recuperate, change clothes, and resupply sleds with frozen herring and beaver fat for their animals. At the midtrail checkpoint, mushers care for teams unassisted. 

After 25 years raising and racing sled dogs, Wallin has developed not only physical and mental stamina but an ability to read her dogs’ emotions and recognize their barks. They respond quickly to her gestures and commands: They trust Wallin, and she has to trust them with her life.  

She sounds almost poetic reflecting on dog sledding with her team: “The amount of prayer time I have out there … I feel cloaked in wonderment when I look around at the beauty God’s created.” She sees moose, wolves, foxes, and snowshoe hares and has time to pray for her family and ruminate on what she’ll plant in her spring garden.

During two days of racing, Wallin snatches four to five hours of sleep, downs as much peanut butter and cream cheese as she wants, ends up with cold-swollen face and fingers, and is exhausted but elated.

This year, after more than 32 hours on the trail, Wallin crosses the finish line as the first female finisher, and fifth overall. 

“Never in a million years did I ever think growing up I’d be doing this,” marvels Wallin. Now she can’t imagine otherwise.